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Aelfric

Aelfric, called the "Grammarian" (c. 955-1020?), English abbot and author, was born about 955.

He was educated in the Benedictine monastery at Winchester under Aethelwold, who was bishop there from 963 to 984. Aethelwold had carried on the tradition of Dunstan in his government of the abbey of Abingdon, England, and at Winchester he continued his strenuous efforts. He seems to have actually taken part in the work of teaching.

Aelfric no doubt gained some reputation as a scholar at Winchester, for when, in 987, the abbey of Cernel (Cerne Abbas, Dorset) was finished, he was sent by Bishop Aelfheah (Alphege), Aethelwold's successor, at the request of the chief benefactor of the abbey, the ealdorman Aethelmaer, to teach the Benedictine monks there. He was then in priest's orders. Aethelmaer and his father Aethelweard were both enlightened patrons of learning, and became Aelfric's faithful friends.

It was at Cernel, and partly at the desire, it appears, of Aethelweard, that he planned the two series of his English homilies (ed. Benjamin Thorpe, 1844-1846, for the Aelfric Society), compiled from the Christian fathers, and dedicated to Sigeric[?], archbishop of Canterbury (990-994). The Latin preface to the first series enumerates some of Aelfric's authorities, the chief of whom was Gregory the Great, but the short list there given by no means exhausts the authors whom he consulted. In the preface to the first volume he regrets that except for Alfred's translations Englishmen had no means of learning the true doctrine as expounded by the Latin fathers. Professor Earle (A.S. Literature, 1884) thinks he aimed at correcting the apocryphal, and to modern ideas superstitious, teaching of the earlier Blickling Homilies.

The first series of forty homilies is devoted to plain and direct exposition of the chief events of the Christian year; the second deals more fully with church doctrine and history, Aelfric denied the immaculate birth of the Virgin (Homilies, ed. Thorpe, ii. 466), and his teaching on the Eucharist in the Canons and in the Sermo de sacrificio in die pascae (ibid. ii. 262 seq.) was appealed to by the Protestant Reformation writers as a proof that the early English church did not hold the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation.

His Latin Grammar and Glossary were written for his pupils after the two books of homilies. A third series of homilies, the Lives of the Saints, dates from 906 to 997. Some of the sermons in the second series had been written in a kind of rhythmical, alliterative prose, and in the Lives of the Saints (ed. W. W. Skeat, 1881-1900, for the Early English Text Society) the practice is so regular that most of them are arranged as verse by Professor Skeat.

By the wish of Aethelweard he also began a paraphrase of parts of the Old Testament, but under protest, for the stories related in it were not, he thought, suitable for simple minds. There is no certain proof that he remained at Cernel. It has been suggested that this part of his life was chiefly spent at Winchester; but his writings for the patrons of Cernel, and the fact that he wrote in 998 his Canons as a pastoral letter for Wulfsige, the bishop of Sherborne, the diocese in which the abbey was situated, afford presumption of continued residence there.

He became in 1005 the first abbot of Eynsham or Ensham, near Oxford, another foundation of Aethelmaer's. After his elevation he wrote an abridgment for his monks of Aethelwold's De consuetudine monachorum, adapted to their rudimentary ideas of monastic life; a letter to Wulfgeat of Ylmandun; an introduction to the study of the Old and New Testaments (about 1008, edited by William L'Isle in 1623); a Latin life of his master Aethelwold; a pastoral letter for Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester, in Latin and English; and an English version of Bede's De Temporibus.

The Colloquium, a Latin dialogue designed to serve his scholars as a manual of Latin conversation, may date from his life at Cernel. It is safe to assume that the original draft of this, afterwards enlarged by his pupil, Aelfric Bata, was by Aelfric, and represents what his own scholar days were like. The last mention of Aelfric Abbot, probably the grammarian, is in a will dating from about 1020.

There have been three suppositions about Aelfric.

(1) He was identified with Aelfric (995--1005), archbishop of Canterbury. This view was upheld by John Bale (Iii. Maj. Bril. Scriptorum 2nd ed., Basel, 1557-1559; vol. i. p. 149, s.v, Alfric); by Humphrey Wanley (Catalogus librorum septentrionalium, &c., Oxford, 1705, forming vol. ii. of George Hickes's Antiquae literaturae septemtrionalis); by Elizabeth Elstob, The English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St Gregory (1709; new edition, 1839); and by Edward Rowe Mores[?], Aelfrico, Dorobernensi, archiepiscopo, Commentarius (ed. G. J. Thorkelin, 1789), in which the conclusions of earlier writers on Aelfric are reviewed. Mores made him abbot of St Augustine's at Dover, and finally archbishop of Canterbury.

(2) Sir Henry Spelman, in his Concina ... (1639, vol. i. p. 583), printed the Canones ad Wulsinum episcopum, and suggested Aelfric Putta[?] or Putto, archbishop of York, as the author, adding some note of others bearing the name. The identity of Aelfric the grammarian with Aelfric archbishop of York was also discussed by Henry Wharton, in Anglia Sacra (1691, vol. i. pp. 125-134), in a dissertation reprinted in JP Migne's Patrologia (vol. 139, pp. 1459-70, Paris, 1853).

(3) William of Malmesbuty (De gestis pontificum Anglorum, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series, 1870, p. 406) suggested that he was abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Crediton.

The main facts of his career were finally elucidated by Eduard Dietrich in a series of articles contributed to C. W. Niedner's Zeitschrift für historische Theologie (vols. for 1855 and 1856, Gotha), which have formed the basis of all subsequent writings on the subject.


From an old 1911 Encyclopedia



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